Springfield Fire Department Chief Chad Zimmerman had just stepped out of the shower around 11 p.m. Monday when his beeper went off.
A call had come in to the volunteer department for a brush fire in Sarpy County, near 180th Street and Platteview Road.
He rode over with one of his captains. A weed truck and a tanker responded.
“The guy I was with, one of my captains, he said, ‘Yeah, brush fire, big deal, let’s put it out, go back to bed,’ ” Zimmerman said.
“That changed drastically.”
By the time the crew was within a mile-and-a-half or so of the fire, they got a chilling update from dispatchers: What had been called in as a brush fire was actually a car fire in a ravine, with possible occupants trapped inside.
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First responders are no strangers to tragedy, but firefighters, Sarpy County sheriff’s deputies and other personnel arrived at a scene Monday night that several called especially harrowing: a fiery car crash that claimed the lives of four teenage girls. Another girl, injured with burns, remains hospitalized. All are 15 or 16 years old.
“It’s trauma to the first responders, the deputies and even the dispatchers,” said Greg London, chief deputy of the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office. “I’ve been here for over 30 years. We’ve had other multi-fatalities ... but we’ve never had one where there’s four teenagers that died in one accident.”
And the fatal wreck followed a string of recent incidents that have left firefighters and law enforcement officials shaken, including a 4-month-old baby killed in a car accident near the Nebraska Crossing Outlets in May, several suicides in Sarpy County and a recent Ashland-Greenwood High School graduate who died in a car crash at the beginning of June.
The girls involved in Monday’s crash were all students at Gretna High School.
“It’s hard to see people with their whole lives ahead of them in that situation,” said Gretna Fire Chief Rod Buethe. “That’s what makes it hard, people from your home community. Not that any of them are easy, but when you see the families on the street, that makes it a little harder.”
Zimmerman is a father — one of his kids is 15, too.
“You go home and you want to yank both your kids out of bed and give them a hug,” he said.
The Gretna and Springfield fire and rescue squads are volunteer departments and about eight people from each department responded Monday night. Buethe said the companies got the equipment and the staff they needed, including an ambulance, to the fire quickly, but the initial report of a brush fire didn’t help matters.
“It’s a completely different set of equipment you take for a grass fire compared to a car wreck,” he said.
Nebraska State Patrol troopers were on the scene, too. In addition to emergency responders, about 25 Sarpy County deputies have worked on the accident investigation, from the night-shift deputies who initially responded to investigators who have collected evidence and tracked leads to determine the accident’s cause.
The crash remains under investigation, and officials have not released the names of any of the victims. Deputies said Tuesday that they were obligated to do a thorough investigation and that positively identifying the victims could take time.
Later this week, London said, the Sheriff’s Office will hold a critical incident stress debriefing for anyone who has worked the case. A mental health professional will lead a discussion, and people can request one-on-one sessions, too. County employees also have access to a mental health employee assistance program.
Answering calls for car crashes, fires, domestic assaults and suicides can wear down first responders physically, emotionally and mentally, London said. But some of the stigma around talking about mental health and trauma is easing.
“People would have never talked about these issues 30 years ago,” London said.
As the families and friends of the teenagers continue to grieve, community members are trying to figure out how to offer help and support, too.
Friends of the five families have set up meal drop-offs. Students, teachers and sports teams have snapped photos wearing Gretna green. Counselors were on hand for students and staff at Gretna High on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Gretna City Councilwoman Angie Lauritsen said there may be some sort of community fund started for the families, one or several accounts that could give donors peace of mind that the money would go directly to those affected — if they want or need help.
“I don’t want to intrude,” she said. “I want to make sure the family is being taken care of how they’d like to be taken care of.”
Kathe Downs owns LX Fit Camp in Gretna, where the mother of one of the girls who died works. Downs set up a fundraising account on PayPal to help the family pay for funeral and other unanticipated expenses. More than $23,000 had been raised by Wednesday afternoon.
“People want an outlet,” she said. “People want to help. None of us plan to bury our babies.”